Just the other day, I was walking in the sunshine, music playing through the buds stuck in my ears, when the song, “You Are My Sister” came on. As Antony Hegarty’s melodic and impossibly high-pitched voice filled my head I thought back to when we first “met” and how we bonded very quickly over a mutual affection for this album. Immediately my mind took me back to late summer when we met in person for the first time. There I was again, driving up to your place in the rental car, a canopy of tall trees shading us from above; you standing at the gate, that familiar green and red house behind you, the garden surrounding us all. And then, jumping further ahead again, my mind made a b-line to the nicotiana.
When it comes to gardening I love practically every thing and every plant (except those that bore me so vehemently that the feeling is almost too strong to be apathy). My eyes are covetous; I must have it all. I must grow everything. Clearly, this is an unreasonable state of being. Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), there are obstacles in life that keep this in check. There are only so many hours in the day and things that need attending to. My garden is small. My wallet is even smaller.
So, here’s what I do, how I manage this madness: I avoid certain groupings of plants, specific genera (plural for genus). And I don’t just ignore them; I put them out of my mind entirely. I practice an artform that I happen to excel at, one which I call, Seeing without Seeing. For example, for a very long time I told myself, “No big-leaved tropicals.” I would walk into stores and my eyes glazed over them. When I did see them, they were an abstraction. I thought of them as big trees; something wild and free, not something to tame in a pot or bring indoors. It went on like this for years and I did not grow any. Not even one. Out of sight, out of mind. But then I went to Cuba. Twice. [A lush and mountainous part, not an open, sandy beach part.] And then I spent a month in the Caribbean, including three weeks in Dominica where you have to work to make things NOT grow, the tropicals reach super-sized, prehistoric proportions, and it seems like everyone has their own chocolate tree. I started to fantasize that I could have one, too. That was followed some time later by ten days in Thailand where everything is BIG and FABULOUS, including the plants (and the jet-lag), and the next thing you know I have purchased a banana tree.
My resolve had been broken.
There was no stopping me once Pandora’s Box was cracked open. Soon I found myself slogging my way down the street with my arms full of leafy tropicals: colocasias and another banana that I found on sale. But, but… they were so cheap! They were soon followed by two more bananas and a few more colocasias and the next thing I knew I had five bananas and an army of big-leaved tropicals and it was fall, the frost was approaching and now what had I got myself into?
Take this story, replace it with nicotiana, and you’ll where I am headed. I love nicotiana. Their beautiful, sticky, big leaves; the flowers with their graceful, tubular throats, and when they have a scent, it is intoxicating. Unlike big-leaved tropicals, I have allowed myself to dip into this world of flowering tobacco plants, albeit with restraint. Many years back, I grew the green-flowered, Nicotiana langsdorfii. I believe it may have been the first green flower I ever grew. I bought the seeds on eBay (of all places). For some reason it did not distribute itself among the over wintering pots that comprised my roof garden as nicotiana is want to do, but its cousin — a white-flowering form (Nicotiana alata) with blooms that release their fragrance at night – sure as heck did. I’ll never forget the summer that those flowers attracted a hummingbird into my little garden in the sky. What a sight to see a bird so uncommon here, bzzzzing away, three flights above the city street! If I wasn’t hooked before, I was then – I brought a few seedlings with me when I moved and continue to grow its progeny at least a decade later.
In the years that followed, I purchased seed for two other nicotiana, neither of which I have been able to will myself to grow. One is a variegated form (I can not resist anything variegated) and the other is the super, mega-supreme Indian Peace Pipe (N. sylvestris) that sports clusters of dripping flowers on a 6ft plant. Where on earth would I even put this? Still, I got as far as acquiring the seed, but managed to keep the reigns secured on my Id.
I had been good (mostly) and feeling rather superior about it, too, until I saw the nicotiana in your garden. That’s where it all fell apart. Those plants! Like nothing I had seen before. I mean, they are, quite literally, like nothing that exists elsewhere, a unique blend of three varieties — N. mutabilis, N. sylvestris, and N. langsdorfii — plants that have been crossing and setting seed in your garden for so long that they have together forged something or things entirely new. I love the soft, blushing purples and the green flowers that are fluted, almost frilly around the edges. You plucked some seed for me from your plants and I took them home in a paper bag with the plan to scatter them nearer to the house, where they can come up this summer alongside my white N. alata, some distance from the tomatoes that grow in the back third or there-about of my narrow, urban bowling alley yard. I was long ago advised to keep nicotianas far away from tomatoes in the garden. They are closely related plants (its no wonder I love them. I can’t stay away from anything in the Solanaceae family) that tend to share a sensitivity to the same pests and disease.
That should have been enough: my white flowers and your marvelous mutants co-mingling to form something even newer still. But that box had been opened. The Id was out and it wanted more.
This spring you wrote a post about purchasing new nicotiana seed from Daggawalla, a small farm in Oregon. Oh my dear god, the varieties they have! You bought the 12 variety sampler pack, and while I did not go that far (only after willpower and reason was exerted) I still managed to step away from the computer having ordered two more packs. And then I went onto another site, Gardens North, with the expressed purpose of looking for hardy cacti seed. I didn’t find the cactus, but I did find two more nicotiana! [As an aside, Daggawalla offered the most personable customer service of any seed company I have ever purchased from.]
So after all of this, the question remains: Where will I put all of these plants? The answer is not in my garden. I can’t grow them all. The door has been opened and now it has to be shut a little bit. I will need to narrow it down to just a few for this growing season and put the remaining seed away for at least another year. Out of sight, out of mind. Either that, or convince my new neighbours to grow a few. Their yard is expansive for Toronto, sunny, and mostly uncultivated. Or perhaps, I could surreptitiously enlist their help by sneaking a pinch of seed just over the fence where I can still see the blooms when they come up. They won’t notice 4 to 7 foot-tall plants with massive, sticky leaves and robust clusters of colourful blooms.